From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for the fantasy author, so worth looking for.
Hey, listen, you seriously can not write in a genre you aren’t a fan of, and the more well-read you are in the genre, the better, and more original, your own writing will be. Wander around the internet, or talk to the fantasy fans among your circle of friends, and you’ll get no shortage of top ten lists, but this is mine. Note that I was careful to use the word “favorite,” not “best,” which is meant to indicate that I like these books, and in no way mean to belittle or dismiss any of your favorite books that may not be on this list. Also, please don’t think these are the only fantasy books I like—that list would be way, way too long for this little blog.
Enough qualifying, here are my ten faves, in no particular order:
Lost in an interplanar nexus, a city with doors to a million worlds, a man with no past and a group of renegades from across the multiverse attract the attention of the cruel, godlike mistress of Sigil, the enigmatic Lady of Pain.
In the interest of full disclosure this is one of two books on this list that I edited for TSR/Wizards of the Coast. I did suffer over that a bit, worried mostly that this is me pretty unambiguously playing favorites—especially after all that business up front about how these are my favorites—but I had to give this one, and one other, a special nod. I love all the books I’ve worked on and all the authors I’ve worked with as an editor—I promise, all of the rest of you are #11! But Pages of Pain is Troy Denning at the very top of his game, and Troy is an author with considerable game. At times surreal and epic, at times burningly personal, Troy created a new myth from the rubble of some very old sources and breathed life into TSR’s most ambitious Dungeons & Dragons setting ever, Planescape.
Pages of Pain is an absolute must-read mythic high fantasy, even if you’ve never played D&D and have no background in this particular D&D setting. Like a surprisingly large number of the fantasy novels from TSR and Wizards of the Coast (all of them, frankly) it can be fully appreciated as a brilliant work of fantasy in its own right, regardless of its shared-world sources.
Henry Day is kidnapped from his rural home at the age of seven and taken away to live in the forest with a ragtag group of childlike hobgoblins, but his parents never know, because the hobgoblins have left one of their own in his place.
This masterfully written novel of identity, loss, family, and memory is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. The words soak into you, and every page is a revelation. As an author myself I wish I had written it, as an editor I wish I had acquired it, and as a reader I wish I could read it for the first time again, and again . . . and again. The Stolen Child makes the woods out back into a fairyland both grim and hopeful, then proceeds to do the same to your family home, and finally to the land inside your own mind.
Elric comes from a long line of cruel and imperious monarchs of the once mighty empire of Melniboné, but when the petty corruption of his own kind turns him out into the Young Kingdoms, he discovers a world, and a destiny, greater even than his reign as emperor.
Indulge me, please, for including these two books together, which bookend the original Elric series. I just can’t separate them in my memory. This is modern high fantasy at its revelatory best. The world of the Young Kingdoms is the absolute archetype for the post-Tolkien fantasy explosion.
This series can be huge in scope then get right down into the mud for sword-slinging action. Moorcock’s limitless imagination is turned loose at once into a huge, expansive world and deep into one man’s heart. And no one has ever breathed more life into an inanimate object as Moorcock does with the sword Stormbringer. It’s been decades since I first read these books, and I can still hear it singing.
John Carter wanders into a cave from a Civil War battlefield and soon finds himself alone, and naked, on the planet Mars.
Really? You can read that set-up and not want to know what happens next? First published in 1917, the book makes some timely assumptions about life on the planet Mars, which the natives call Barsoom. The climate has been changing, the deserts encroaching, and the canals drying up. But this isn’t a precursor to An Inconvenient Truth, nor is it science fiction in any form. A Princess of Mars is a non-stop slugfest of sword and sorcery (or some call it “sword and planet,” or “planetary romance,”) from the really old, old school, by the creator of Tarzan, no less.
Admittedly, the book is colored by all the now-prosaic assumptions of its day, which means not only is it based on some crazy ideas of what the planet Mars might really be like, it’s at turns sexist and racist—but c’mon, it was 1917.
Despite its unashamed macho bravura, A Princess of Mars has to be on any fantasy top ten list. I have few really vivid memories of my childhood and reading this, in a very old edition I checked out of the Schaumburg Public Library in maybe 1978, is as vivid a memory for me as what I ate for breakfast this morning. The rest of the series is good, too, but this one, this is a masterpiece.
Toru Okada is having a bad day—he’s been fired, his cat is missing, and his wife has left him—and when he sets out to investigate the reasons for his misfortune, his whole world begins to turn in on itself.
Of all the books on this list, I may be stretching the boundaries of most people’s definition of fantasy fiction, but I just can’t see The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in any other way. It’s a novel that’s almost impossible to describe in any sort of coherent form, so I won’t try to label it contemporary fantasy, urban fantasy, or magical realism, though if you must, you can try to attach it to any of those subgenres. It’s among the strangest novels I’ve ever read, but it lacks the self-conscious experimentation of something like William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch. It’s almost as though Murakami doesn’t realize he’s several light-years off the beaten path. The language is spare and perfect in a phenomenal translation from the original Japanese by Jay Rubin, unsentimental, but wickedly surreal. There is one scene in particular that has lodged in my consciousness, so disturbing it makes me cringe years later. Read this book with your thinking cap on. It is not your grandfather’s fantasy novel.
Two rival magicians stun the British aristocracy, and pitch in for the Napoleonic War effort.
Boy, that’s an understatement! This mammoth novel may be the longest I’ve ever read—seriously, it’s enormous. Its also the absolutely best historical fantasy ever written—oops, that was me using the “B’ word, wasn’t it? I don’t care. It is.
Written in period usage that, remarkably, never grows tiresome, so impeccably researched even the magic begins to seem like historical fact, this novelist’s novel is an absolute triumph, and one of those extraordinarily rare books that went from new release to classic in the space of about a day. It’s just that good—no, that great.
Intrepid explorer Professor Edward Challenger leads a daring expedition to a mysterious plateau deep in the Amazon jungle, and finds a world lost in time, where dinosaurs and ape men still rule.
This book spawned many imitators since it was first published in 1912, and contributed to some of the major archetypes of the genre that would be reused and refined in the pages of the pulp magazines for maybe the next thirty years. I read this as a youngster, probably ten or eleven, because I’d seen one of the movie versions on TV and had started to realize that when books were made into movies—especially stories that required special effects, and movies at the time were invariably incapable of rendering the author’s original vision in anything like a convincing manner—the books were better. This was one of those books that grabbed me by the collar and pulled me through it, and I remember being disappointed when it was over.
I remember looking up the word “plateau” in a dictionary while reading this for the first time. I had no idea what a plateau was, a fact I blame on my flatland prairie upbringing in suburban Chicago. But then when I moved to the Sammamish Plateau east of Seattle some decades later, this book rushed into my consciousness again. So far, though, no dinosaurs have presented themselves in my backyard, though the dog and I continue to keep a sharp eye out.
Sparrowhawk hungers for knowledge, and seeks it on a voyage across the islands of the mythic world of Earthsea, but before he can master his own magic, he’ll imperil not just himself, but the world.
I think this is the greatest of the young-wizard-masters-his-own-power stories, which has become a fairly common fantasy trope—common in that many have tried to best Le Guin, and in my opinion, at least, all have come up wanting.
Earthsea is that rare fantasy world that I just want to live in. Barsoom is a little spiky, a little neo-con for me; Middle Earth just too much; the Young Kingdoms too grim and dangerous. If I could have a beachfront cabin in Earthsea, I’d never leave it. That doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of danger and action in this series, but it all has an innocence, an almost fairy tale charm lacking in most high fantasy novels. Though that can so easily fall into sentimentality, Le Guin is too smart a writer to allow that.
The way magic works in the world of Earthsea is more richly realized than in any other fantasy novel I’ve ever read, with the possible exception of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. This book, and the novels that follow in the series, comprise a master class for anyone fascinated by the genre.
A simple hobbit is called upon by the wizard Gandalf to undertake an adventure too dangerous for a simple hobbit, but thankfully, Bilbo is not as simple as he thinks.
This is the prequel to Tolkien’s masterwork, The Lord of the Rings. Okay, blasphemy time—I think I’ve said it publicly before, but I am not a big fan of The Lord of the Rings. Unlike so many of my comrades-in-fantasy-arms, it was not my introduction to fantasy. I’ve already told the tale in a blog post about a certain Conan comic book that served that role for me, but I do admit that everything that’s come after is essentially a Lord of the Rings pastiche, including books I’ve written and edited myself.
My including The Hobbit on this list is not an attempt to backpedal on my Lord of the Rings ambivalence. I read this book ages ago, and loved it. I loved it so much I immediately bought a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring, and only made it about a third of the way through it, even in three attempts.
The Hobbit lacks LotR’s huge scope, and maybe that’s why I like it more. It felt more personal to me, a tighter narrative, and the high adventure of it is a killer. Gollum scared the pants off me, and the dragon Smaug was, and still is, the coolest dragon in fantasy. I promise one day I’ll try again to make it through The Lord of the Rings, but until then, for me it’s all Bilbo, all the time!
A woman travels across a barbaric land to a corrupt city to find her grandfather, the man who murdered everyone in her village, and finds the secret of her own savage heart.
Again, in the interest of full disclosure, this is the second of the two books on this list that I edited for Wizards of the Coast. This one came in through what we lovingly refer to in the publishing business as “the slush pile.” That means the author just dropped several printed pages in an envelope and mailed it to us cold.
It came in just as we first began reading manuscripts for what would become our short-lived Wizards of the Coast Discoveries imprint, our stab at non-shared world fantasy, SF, and horror. The envelope came to me at random, and I dug in with no expectations at all.
I know it sounds harsh to say it, but in all honesty, the slush pile rarely provides much but a shrug, and the occasional hilarious train-wreck of a manuscript that we, um . . . don’t read aloud and make fun of (really, honestly, we never do that . . . as far as you know), but also rarely—very rarely—the slush pile offers up something that knocks us back on our heels.
I went into this sample skeptical, and stayed skeptical even though I was taken with the style of the writing from the first sentence. I think I’ve actually built up a certain slush pile defensive aura so that it took me a while before I realized, Hey, wait a minute, I’m still reading this.
Another closely guarded secret: Most slush pile submissions are rejected in the first paragraph—I know, look for a blog post on how to help make your first paragraph get an editor or agent to read your second paragraph—but I’d read ten pages or so of Last Dragon before I stopped and thought, honestly, this is either the worst fantasy novel I’ve ever read, or this guy is a genius who may just remake the entire genre.
There was only one way to find out. I contacted the author and asked for the complete manuscript. It showed up promptly—a good sign, he’d actually finished it—and I started reading. By the middle of the manuscript I’d stopped being surprised by the fact that I was still reading, even though I started the full manuscript still thinking, No way can he sustain this, it’s going to fall apart, get formulaic . . . Something was going to disappoint me.
Nothing did. I finished the book in stunned disbelief then spent the next several months fighting to make it one of our first Discoveries novels, and I do mean fighting. But since then no one I know of who’s read it has had anything but the same reaction I had. There has never been a fantasy novel like Last Dragon before, and I’ve yet to see one since. This is a book you just have to experience for yourself, a literary triumph that is among the greatest first novels ever written in any genre.
So there you have it, marching orders from me. Read these ten books. And if you have a list of your own, go ahead and comment here—I’m always looking for a great fantasy novel I have yet to discover on my own!